MOVIE REVIEW: The Guardians
THE GUARDIANS-- 2 STARS
No matter the country or the era, good citizens know that wars are fought on battlefields but survived and strengthened in other places as well. There is a different and commendable bravery found in the young and old to carry on the community dream of hearth and home. For the “War to End All Wars” at the beginning of the 20th century, those civilians predominantly included women who were mothers, wives, fiances, and sisters. No one was immune to hard work. Xavier Beauvois’s often lovely foreign film The Guardians from Music Box Films follows the hardscrabble trials and tribulations of one French homestead of ladies during the lean years of World War I.
LESSON #1: THE INDEPENDENT WOMEN AT HOME DURING WARTIME-- More than two decades before Rosie the Riveter, it was up to women to pull up the bootstraps and tighten belts. They maintained the farms, properties, and civil discourse while the men were off in uniforms. They may be the fairer sex, but they are not the weaker one. Their moxie fought off inevitable challenges of grief and held society together one house at a time.
Based on Ernest Pérochon’s novel, the fictional Sandrail family are dedicated farmers by trade in rural France. The two Sandrail sons, the beloved school teacher Constant (Nicolas Giraud of Taken) and his younger brother Georges (Cyril Descours), as well as a connected son-in-law Clovis (Olivier Rabourdin of Midnight in Paris) are away for their patriotic cause. With those men gone, it is up to the family matriarch Hortense Sandrail (Nathalie Baye of Catch Me If You Can) to keep the business functional and fill the bellies of hungry neighbors and soldiers. She does so with the utmost strictness to keep dignity and chins as high as crop yield expectations.
Hortense’s lone daughter Solange (Laura Smet) weathers the work efforts beside her, but she is not enough. Hortense cautiously hires a scarlet-haired young maiden named Francine (debuting newcomer Iris Bry) to assist. Spanning the course of the five years between 1915 and 1920, much of The Guardians is spent observing the mundane routines and rigorous work of these resolute women and the occasional furloughs of the returning men. Holy Motors lenser Caroline Champetier employs wide-eyed and award-worthy cinematography seeped in natural lighting. Her slow tracks and pans to capture these daily plights with a serene quality.
As the war relents so do the domestic challenges. Horse-drawn implements and the arduous farmhand tasks are eased by mechanical threshers and the Sandrail’s first motorized tractor. As the years go on, more of the wounded, including Georges, return home and the increased American involvement in the war bring new bodies to town. Through it all, Francine’s songbird spirit and hard work become indispensable to the Sandrail family and earning the respect of Hortense and the doting affection of Georges.
LESSON #2: PASSION ON THE HOMEFRONT-- Thanks to Hortense’s indomitable will and decorum this is not a rampant environment of “when the cat's away the mice will play.” However, unbridled affairs of the heart in The Guardians spring forth nonetheless. Some are affectionate courtships while others are cathartic releases and torrid indulgences. Missteps of romance that occur do have the ability to wreck homes and ruin public and family reputations.
As aforementioned, The Guardians is shot in an undeniably raw and lovely way. The camera and Beauvois’s intimate direction captures every possible stress across the faces of this film. The pendulum of performance power swings between Baye’s grayed tresses, Smet’s hardened composure, and Bry’s youthful and musical soulfulness. All three embody layers to both lessons presented in this review. Their fine work leads a reserved melodrama adapted by Beauvois, a previous Cannes honoree for Of Gods and Men, and his collaborators Frédérique Moreau (The Good Life) and Marie-Julie Maille, with the latter transitioning from editing to writing for the first time.
The softness away from becoming a soap opera is effective, appreciated, and intentional from Beauvois. That tone of stillness wrapped around small plotlines of disquiet plods to limit most dramatic impact to mere slightness. A prime example is the missed opportunity to yoke more elegance from an underscore provided by legendary film music composer Michel Legrand (The Thomas Crown Affair, Yentl, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg). Though spareness was the goal to match the desolation of the setting, The Guardians grows wings when his music arrives. Those moments are too few and depart quickly. Indulging an infusion of swoon could have gone a long way to increasing engaging sweep for the film.